AROUND THIS TIME of year, makeshift structures start popping up on front lawns, in back yards, even on rooftops. The handmade huts -- described by one 3-year-old as large "shoeboxes" -- are part of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, also known as the "Festival of Booths."
The custom of building a sukkah (plural: sukkot), formerly performed mainly by Orthodox Jews, is becoming more widespread. The huts dot the landscape in the Woodside area of Silver Spring, where there is a large Jewish population, and they also can be found in neighborhoods throughout the Washington area.
A sukkah is constructed as a reminder that Jewish people lived in temporary booths during their exodus from Egypt. Sukkot also celebrates the fall harvest, which is why you see gourds and other seasonal vegetables and fruits dangling from sukkah roofs.
The holiday begins two weeks after Rosh Hashanah -- the Jewish new year -- and lasts for nine days. This year Sukkot starts at sundown on Oct. 3.
Creating a sukkah is a great family activity. In fact, since it is customary to share the holiday with friends, sukkah-building makes for a fun neighborhood project. After the sukkah is constructed and decorated, the hut's architects -- young and old -- can gather in the sukkah to celebrate the fruits of their labor.
The Bellows family of Vienna frequently invites the Mellnicks from next door to dine in their sukkah. Says Margaret Mellnick, 10, "We sing Jewish songs and pass around the wine. I love it. It's really fun."
One of her hosts, 6-year-old Abigail Bellows, is a veteran sukkah builder. "We need ladders," she explains, "because we want to make it really tall, so the grown-ups can fit in it, too."
The construction of a sukkah follows certain ancient laws:
A sukkah must be a temporary structure, as a reminder of the portability of the huts in the desert. The true test is if it "shakes in the wind."
The structure must also be "open to the sky." For instance, you cannot build a sukkah under a tree or inside another building. The roof of the sukkah should be made from organic material such as evergreen, willow or palm branches, bamboo or dried corn stalks. The sukkah must be covered, so as to provide more shade than light, but the covering must not stop raindrops.
Of course it's preferable to be in the sukkah on a clear day. "I like eating in the sukkah because the sun shines right on me," says Laura Bellows, 7.
Kids also enjoy locating the stars and the moon through the branches. Since the Jewish calendar follows the lunar cycle, you can always count on a full moon for Sukkot.
The sukkah must have at least three walls, which may be made of any material; wood and canvas are the most common, but you can also use old sheets, pieces of fabric or bamboo fencing.
The Winn-Ritzenberg family builds a sukkah with bamboo they gather from their neighborhood in Northwest Washington. The Sorefs' sukkah is constructed from packing crates donated by a friend from the foreign service. On the shores of Lake Barcroft in Falls Church, Ida and Sid Jervis's grape arbor, made from driftwood collected from the lake, doubles as a sukkah.
"The First Jewish Catalog," sold at area bookstores, offers instructions for building an easy and inexpensive sukkah of cement blocks and two-by-fours. If you're not a do-it-yourself kind of person, you can order a prefabricated sukkah from some Jewish bookstores. A canvas sukkah costs $320 or you can buy a high-tech modular fiber glass sukkah for around $1,000.
When it comes to decorating, the sky's the limit. If you have a garden, show off your fall crop and add some color to the sukkah, hanging any vegetable you can manage to tie a string around. Many families string cranberries and popcorn.
Abigail Bellows makes paper chains, and then writes messages on them such as "I like my mother" and "I like ice cream." Joshua Smith Soref is famous in his family for the lanterns he fashions from construction paper. It is also common to display Rosh Hashanah cards or children's drawings on the walls. In the more luxurious sukkot, you'll even find carpeting.
During the holiday, Jews are commanded to "dwell" in the sukkah. Some Jews sleep in the structure as a measure of piety. But most people celebrate the holiday by eating meals there.
Lev Berenbaum, 12, remembers the time his father was in the family sukkah, just before dinner. All of a sudden the whole structure collapsed on him. Sukkot are supposed to be temporary, but not that temporary. With 15 minutes until sundown, the family pitched in to rebuild the hut in time for the holiday meal.
SUKKOT TO ME
Jewish community centers and Jewish student associations invite the public to participate in sukkah-building activities. Area synagogues and havurot (communities) also welcome visitors into their sukkot. Additional information about community celebrations is available from the Jewish Information and Referral Service, 770-4848.
AMERICAN UNIVERSITY -- Nebraska and Massachusetts avenues NW. 885-3322. Sukkah-building will take place on the quad in front of the Kay Spiritual Life Center at 12:30 on Oct. 3.
D.C. JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER -- 1836 Jefferson Pl. NW. 775-1765. The sukkah will be built on the center's roof on Oct. 1 at 6 p.m.
GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY -- Student Union Building 1, Room 207, 4400 University Dr., Fairfax. 323-2173. The sukkah will be built on campus near dormitories on Oct. 3 at 1 p.m.
GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY -- 2300 H St. NW. 296-8873. A sukkah will be built on the driveway at the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation on Sept. 30 at noon.
JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER OF GREATER WASHINGTON -- 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville. 881-0100. The community center will hold a luncheon from noon to 2 on Oct. 7. Prices range from $4 to $8 for the luncheon, which includes singing, dancing and decorating the sukkah.
JEWISH COMMUNITY CENTER OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA -- 8900 Little River Tnpk., Fairfax. 323-0880. The sukkah will be built on Sept. 30 at 1 p.m.
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND -- 7612 Mowatt Lane, College Park. 422-6200. Sukkah-building at the B'nai B'rith Hillel-Federation Jewish Student Center will begin on Thursday and continue Oct. 1-2.
A LIKELY STORY -- 1555 King St., Alexandria. 836-2498. This children's bookstore will hold a Sukkot workshop at 1 p.m. on Sept. 30 for ages 3 and up. Each child will make a sukkah from a shoebox. Free, but reservations required.
Janice L. Kaplan last wrote for Weekend about the Small Jewish Museum.